In July, twelve high school students from McComb stood in the hot shade of an Amite County farm and listened to a blues musician perform and tell stories about growing up in the area during the Civil Rights Movement. The students, ranging from ninth to twelfth grade and all from McComb, were on a field trip for a week-long summer institute studying voter registration efforts in their community. The musician, international performer Roosevelt Williams, Jr. (Juju Child), grew up next door to Herbert Lee, a black farmer and voting rights activist murdered in 1961, on whose land the students were standing.
The students spent the week uncovering the hidden past of the voter registration movement in Pike and Amite Counties. The murder of Herbert Lee and a witness, Louis Allen, were key pieces to the story. As one student wrote, “The main question on some of our minds was, ‘What really happened the day Herbert Lee was murdered’ and ‘How did the fight for the right to vote affect the people in the surrounding area?’”
In addition to Mr. Williams, students spoke with Lavelt Steptoe, Sr., the son of E.W. Steptoe, a black community leader who helped Mr. Lee organize local blacks to register to vote. “We have a class with your grandson,” the rising seniors informed Mr. Steptoe as he impressed upon them the importance of voting.
They ate lunch with Mr. Steptoe at the Cotton Gin, the site where Mr. Lee was murdered by a white state representative who owned the land that bordered his.
The summer institute provided an opportunity for students to engage with history in a unique way by visiting local historic sites, role playing witness accounts, speaking with longtime residents, and analyzing primary documents including newspaper clips and oral history interviews.
From the research they gathered, the McComb students created drafts of a film documentary, stage performance, and a visual timeline. They will add new content to the student-run local history website McCombLegacies.org. During the fall students will continue to work on the film and performance as entries for the National History Day competition. The film about the Burglund Walkout produced in last year’s summer institute won a state level National History Day award.
The impact of the summer institute is best captured in students own words. “This institute has taught me that everyone has a chance to lead when they feel they need to,” reflected one student.
“I never knew all of this stuff happened in a place I don’t live too far from,” wrote a rising senior. “I’m actually learning more stuff now than I learn in class reading a textbook about world history. Local history is so much better because you actually can say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to that place,’ or ‘Oh, I’ve seen or spoken with that person.’ The more local history you know the more you have a chance to create a future for the next generation.”
When asked to compare the summer institute with most classes in school, they shared:
They also reflected on how the institute challenged their perceptions of their community and civic engagement: